NEW YORK—Merrill Lynch has concluded a lengthy search for its senior corporate communications position, naming Jason Wright, former head of worldwide communications at Nabisco Group Holdings and its predecessor RJR Nabisco, as its new senior vice president of communications & public affairs.
Wright will report to chairman and CEO Stan O’Neal and serve on the company’s operating committee. As senior communications strategist, he will assume global responsibility for all external and internal communications activities, including: media and government relations; employee, business group, executive, shareholder and public policy communications; corporate marketing and brand identity, and other related activities.
Wright succeeds Paul Critchlow, who served as the company’s senior communications executive for nearly 15 years. Critchlow will assume a new role as counselor to the chairman and as vice chairman, public markets, assisting in business development with state and local government clients.
Says O’Neal, “As a highly respected professional, Jason will bring a new perspective to our communications activities as well as a wealth of business experience in dealing with significant and visible financial, operational and public policy issues. Throughout his career, he has maintained a high level of personal integrity and credibility with the news media and other important business constituencies.”
The company found itself at the center of the recent Wall Street scandals. Merrill agreed to pay $280 million to settle charges, which it neither admitted nor denied, that it misled investors and helped Enron cook its books. Federal courts ruled in January that tax-avoidance schemes it sold to clients such as American Home Products were illegal. And it still faces investor lawsuits that could cost it billions.
O’Neal, who took over as CEO earlier this year, is credited with what Business Week recently described as a “Darwinian” culture that “encourages managers to take risks and gives them six months to a year to show they can succeed—or get out.” In January, he told investors he planned to build “a new kind of financial-services firm” that would offer a far greater range of services, but with far fewer people and an unrelenting focus on profitability.
Not known for his public relations skills—he declined to be interviewed for the Business Week article—he nonetheless appears to recognize that effective communication will be vital to implementing his proposed changes.
Wright is no stranger to dramatic change. At Nabisco and RJR Nabisco, he was responsible for the overall corporate positioning, overseeing communications and government relations initiatives supporting its emergence from a $33 billion leveraged buyout to public ownership, and subsequent efforts to substantially improve shareholder returns. He joined RJR Nabisco in 1990 as vice president, financial communications, and was appointed head of worldwide communications in 1993.
Previously, Wright worked at Aetna, and was director of corporate and financial communications when he left the company.
Since the sale of Nabisco and RJR Nabisco in 2000, Wright has been principal of his own firm, Geer Mountain Holdings, providing capital and advisory services to several companies in the business services and consumer products industries.